The SF Public Press broke a huge story last week: A major event venue conducted an unsanctioned sweep of an adjacent homeless encampment, before hosting a big tech conference’s virtual soundstage—displacing eight residents in the middle of the night during a pandemic, and hauling away their possessions in unmarked trucks as the police stood by, according to witnesses.
In the wake of journalist Nuala Bishari’s reporting, most of the outrage was directed at the tech sector. The conference was TechCrunch’s famous Disrupt event, a showy hook for online vitriol. And the venue was SVN West, the former Honda dealership at Market and Van Ness, leased by event company Non Plus Ultra—a name relatively unfamiliar to the general public, despite throwing events for years at city-contracted venues Pier 70 and The Mint, and recently at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Since the story broke, TechCrunch has cut ties with Non Plus Ultra, supervisor Matt Haney has called the action “unacceptable,” and several city groups are considering legal steps after the incident, which the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights called “blatantly illegal,” according to Bishari’s follow-up reporting. (The city itself, however, has remained silent.)
But the man who willingly admits he called the trash crew—Peter Glikshtern, a principal at Non Plus Ultra, although not directly involved in day-to-day operations—is one of the most well-known and influential club owners of the last 25 years. Shockwaves rippled through the local dance music community at the article’s charges. Glikshtern is an outspoken, often fierce advocate for nightlife who often gets his way, but maintains a relatively low profile when it comes to public drama. What was going on?
The clubs that Glikshtern’s opened, managed, or otherwise had a hand in since the late 1990s—Liquid, Pink, Club Six, Temple, 1015, Mighty, Public Works, The Midway—and bars Big, Jones, and Odd Job were essential to both the techno and cocktail booms of the past two decades. (Glikshtern is now only involved in the Midway, Jones, and Non Plus Ultra.)
Some controversy has followed Glikshtern as he’s built his empire, from a violent run-in with Mission dwellers at his first club that was the subject of a 2000 SF Weekly cover story, to implications that his clubs and bars, mostly opened in poor and working class neighborhoods, serve as anchors for gentrification.
The current accusations against Glikshtern, who says he was operating independently of Non Plus Ultra, are heinous. In the wake of the incident, former employees of Glikshtern’s venues and people who have worked with him spoke to me— anonymously, since the SF nightlife industry is so intertwined and Glikshtern has operated more than half of it—about his businesses’ attitude toward homelessness.
One told me that employees at Public Works (the club) were encouraged to photograph and document homeless encampments to a shared Google drive, and call 311 repeatedly until the encampments were cleared. Two people recounted club Public Works employees being pressured to confront homeless people camped on the adjacent Erie Street until they felt uncomfortable, but that when Glikshtern was there he would talk to the homeless people himself until they moved. (Glikshtern separated from Public Works several years ago, although his tenure as part-owner overlaps with the period of these accounts.)
Another source said that mini-sweeps similar to the one Glikshtern is accused of outside SVN West were conducted at The Midway as it was moving into the Dogpatch neighborhood, with small encampments being rousted or removed several times along Illinois and Marin Streets. And another told me, “I had no issues working professionally with Pete, although he could be unpredictable—there’s a fatherly side and an asshole side, like most club owners. But in his offices there is an atmosphere of free-floating anger that the people in charge haven’t been doing enough to make sure homeless people don’t make the business look bad.”
I spoke with Glikshtern over the phone, to ask him about the allegations. He tells a different version of events from the one reported, and some of his characterizations of the homeless situation are shocking and unsettling. Glikshtern vehemently denies aspects of Bishari’s report, and insists that the actions he took to “clean up” the area of the encampment, which he says was blocking a SVN West exit and the sidewalk on 12th Street, were necessary. He also firmly said he was speaking on his own behalf, not that of his company Non Plus Ultra. “In fact, I’m probably out of here soon,” he told me. “I haven’t really been involved in a while, and I’m tired of having to constantly wear a muzzle like you have to in the corporate events industry.”
“Ms. Bishari’s account of what happened is a total fantasy,” Glikshtern said. “She left out almost everything I told her about what happened. She’s a crusader, one of those people who moves here and sees the homeless and feels sorry for them and thinks she suddenly has a cause—but she’ll move away in a couple years like all the rest. She’s an example of how this town is completely broken around the homeless issue. People get all fuzzy and emotional when there’s homeless people involved, which prevents us from really addressing the problem.
“But the truth is these are people living in their own trash and shit, it’s terrible for them, and they can’t help themselves out of it. None of the people Ms. Bashari interviewed for her piece had lived in the encampment behind SVN. I met and spoke with every single one of the people who had lived in that encampment. They had all left by the time we were cleaning up back there. The people whom Ms. Bishari interviewed mostly live in the nav center across the street.” (Bishari responds: “The Public Press interviewed a 12th Street resident in a tent for our story.)
“There’s a shit-ton of drug-taking and some have intense mental health issues, Glikshtern said. “I feel compassion for them. And I don’t see the city getting its act together on this. So you have to do it yourself. Everyone has something to gain, everyone has something to lose, so as a result nothing ever gets done.”
(As of August 6, the city had leased 2600 hotel rooms for homeless people during the pandemic, but it has since stopped acquiring more. Shelter in Place regulations forbid homeless tent sweeps by the city. Instead the Department of Public Works usually cleans the area around tents when called by businesses. Bishari is the former news editor of SF Weekly who has reported on crime and homelessness since 2013. She responded, “The only thing I left out of my account from Mr. Glikshtern was confirmation that he used a sexual slur against a resident at the scene. I am a 10-year resident of San Francisco with no intention of moving anytime soon. I also think that caring about the 8000 people living on the streets of this city is a moral obligation. Their unhoused status doesn’t mean they aren’t our neighbors and members of our community.”)
Glikshtern tells me that he spoke with the encampment’s residents days ahead of time and that all willingly moved across the street except a couple co-habitating a tent “who were too fucked up to move” and one other man “with serious issues, who ended up calling his ‘uncle’ to try to get tough with me, but saw the situation and moved on.” After speaking with the remaining residents again, Glikshtern says, they moved too, but left the area full of items he judged to be abandoned.
“So I called a crew and we took it all to the dump. You see these reports of this all being high-value belongings like thousands of dollars in cash and someone’s precious violin. But it was just trash. Most of what these people live with is not what we call personal belongings, it’s just garbage and litter around their tents.” (A Facebook video posted at the time shows a crew, including what looks to be Glikstern, hauling away several items including a tent.)
“I absolutely did not do anything wrong,” Glikshtern said. “The building manager across the street called 911 on us three times, I had to lay on the ground and be searched, but the police never took me into custody—which is weird if someone is actually doing something wrong.”
(Tori Larson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights disputes some of Glikstern’s statements, saying, “People have a right to their belongings whether you consider them trash or not. They may be survival gear, or sentimental items—they still belong to someone. The statement that a majority of unhoused people are drug addicts is also a vast mischaracterization; it’s a myth that has been used to criminalize the poor. People are unhoused because of poverty and displacement, whether they use drugs or not. That forces them into public places, where they are doing their best to survive. That may not look visually appealing to us, but the real travesty is that they don’t have private spaces to live.” Paul Boden of the homeless-advocating Western Regional Advocacy Project adds, “We’re seeing a dangerous, continued rise in private citizens and security forces policing and harassing unhoused people while the city stands by and lets them. There isn’t a greater percentage of unhoused drug users or mentally ill people than housed ones. The answer to homelessness is housing, it’s right there in the name.”)
Glikshtern continued: “My parents were immigrants from the Soviet Union, I’ve lived here all my life. I live on Shotwell Street right now, which is not the best area of the city. I served on the Mission Community Conflict Resolution Court for a decade. I’m familiar with the situation a lot of homeless people are struggling with, and see what they’re going through without any help. When you’ve shot up meth for a week, it’s impossible to go fill out a bunch of bureaucratic paperwork to get what you need.”
Did he try to work with city agencies or other homeless organizations to find help for the encampment residents? “My policy has always been to go talk to people directly, and I find that once you do that and acknowledge some of these people with mental issues directly to their face, they respond far more than calling in the police or city. When I see a crazy person screaming at the top of their lungs I walk right up to them and say good morning. Eight out of 10 times they respond with a smile and move on. I’ve worked for years with the DISH project to distribute leftover food through the Tenderloin Project and St. Anthony’s and Project Open Hand. I know the community.”
Glikshtern denies knowledge of a Google drive at club Public Works to document homeless encampments—”although I think it’s a good policy, to have documentation, considering how much you have to protect yourself these days”—and says there were no similar sweeps around the Midway, instead “I talked the people there into moving whenever there was a problem, and when we first moved there, it was a real shitshow.”
What about accusations that his clubs are harbingers of gentrification? Didn’t the homeless people around SVN West, The Midway, and other locations live there first? “That’s an incredibly perverse way of putting it, if that’s how anyone thinks of it,” Glikstern said. “If you think a homeless encampment is a better thing than an ongoing business concern, your vision of San Francisco is very different than mine, and I’m not going to change your mind. That doesn’t mean I think homeless people are evil, but homelessness is not a positive thing. The fact that there’s an insane homeless problem is not a reflection on me and my business.
“Gentrification is definitely an issue. Do I love gentrification, absolutely not. I love flavor, I love diversity. That’s why I move into these neighborhoods. None of the clubs that I run are hoity-toity, they are very accessible places, no expensive bottle service, no exorbitant cover charges. More than that more than half the time I’m out in front working. If I sweep around my house on Shotwell and try to clean up the area, am I a gentrifier? If yes, then call me a gentrifier.”
Does he have any regrets now that TechCrunch has severed ties with his company? “Absolutely not. These big tech companies have the power to change what’s going on in the city, and instead of taking a stand, they run away as soon as there’s a hint of outrage. There’s no way that they would have held the event with the area looking the way it did. This is an example of outrage getting in the way of doing something about the problem. It’s the definition of hypocrisy and cowardice.”
And what does Glikshtern think should be done about homelessness? “This is coming from my experience as a parent, but there needs to be a carrot and a stick. Right now we just have the carrot. And now people are using the pandemic as an excuse to allow this to continue. Letting people live on the street is the opposite of healthy, especially in an epidemic, and once they’re established, these encampments just grow and grow. I don’t want to throw everyone in jail, that’s not the solution. But the city won’t act, so it falls on business owners to figure out what to do. But we have to do it without the benefit of a badge, or a gun, or a ticket book. So I did something.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify Glikshtern’s interaction with the 12th Street residents.